MM offers problem drinkers an alternative to AA 

Just Say No to No

It's Saturday morning, and you've woken up with a splitting headache, the kind that makes your eyes ache. And that feeling in your belly? You try to fight it, but at some point whatever's in there is going to want to come out. As you lay there in your bed, you curse yourself for not knowing when to say when. You vow to quit drinking, but you know you'll only end up breaking it. More importantly, you know that you aren't an alcoholic. You just drink too much from time to time.

Enter Moderation Management, or MM. MM is a program that was developed in the early '90s as an alternative to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and other abstinence-based programs for those who identify as problem drinkers — people who are not actually alcohol dependent, but are concerned about their drinking. The program is similar to AA in that it has a specific framework based on certain values — self management, balance, moderation, and personal responsibility — and it encourages attendance at support group meetings. MM also offers online tools that participants can use to monitor their drinking and a nine-step program emphasizing self-management strategies, goal-setting, and moderate-drinking guidelines and limits.

Charleston's MM group, which meets weekly in Mt. Pleasant, is led by therapist and certified addictions counselor Linda Scott, who strongly believes that moderation can help people manage or change harmful behaviors. "We're trying to reduce the harmful consequences that come with certain behaviors, without prohibiting that behavior," says Scott. It's the same proven tactic behind encouraging condom use to limit the possibility of getting an STD or providing needle exchange programs for drug users to limit the spread of HIV and other illnesses. MM provides early intervention for anyone who is concerned about their drinking, whether that means relying too heavily on a nightly bottle of wine or daydreaming about happy hour all workday long.

Scott has found MM to be very successful with those who participate, saying that she and many professionals who are proponents of moderation "find this approach to be much more realistic" for drinkers who either aren't yet ready to try abstinence, or who don't feel their problems warrant the commitment that AA and other abstinence programs require. "We meet people where they are, if they want to eventually give up drinking or if they know that they never want to give up drinking," she says. "It's a non-judgmental, non-confrontational setting." In addition, MM is secular, which makes it more palatable to those who find AA's belief in a higher power off-putting, although there are secular abstinence-based programs like LifeRing, which has a presence in Charleston.

Scott first heard about harm-reduction and moderation strategies when she was in graduate school studying addictions counseling. "I thought this was something really new, the moderation studies, but they weren't — the research started in the 1970s," she says. But despite 30 years of research, much of which has found moderation to be an effective method for dealing with drug and/or alcohol abuse, moderation and MM continue to be relatively unknown among the general population.

This is unfortunate, because according to MM's website, nine out of 10 problem drinkers "actively and purposefully avoid traditional treatment approaches" due to the fact that they know they will be labeled alcoholics and they believe that total abstinence is the only way to manage their drinking. So what do those other nine problem drinkers do? Often they don't seek help until they are fully dependent on alcohol, and by then the behavior is much more difficult to change. MM's system of early intervention and supportive acceptance can help people address potential alcohol dependency, while allowing each participant to formulate a goal that works for him or her.

Scott saw the need for this kind of program firsthand when she worked as an addictions counselor for Charleston County for several years before going into private practice. It was after opening her own practice that she began looking into moderation management: "I started seeing people for whom AA wasn't a good fit, and I was looking into alternatives," she says. "A client actually told me about [MM]." Scott did her research, even visiting the organization's headquarters in New York. Suddenly, she found herself in charge of hosting MM meetings for the Charleston area. She's been leading them since 2006. "I've seen a lot of great results with it, and I keep in touch with people who've been in the program. Most people come for a while. They don't often feel they have to come permanently," she adds. "Some will pick up again if they feel they need that accountability."

This is not to say that MM meetings alone are all that an individual needs to change his or her drinking behavior. Many of the people whom Scott sees in MM meetings elect to do therapy as well, and overall about 30 percent of people who begin MM nationwide end up going into some sort of abstinence-based program. It's also important to note that MM is not in competition with AA and similar programs; it is simply a different option. For those individuals who have a true chemical dependency on alcohol, abstinence may be the only way to effectively deal with the addiction.

To learn more about MM, visit moderation.org.

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